LINCOLN — Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook will be the first to admit he's not long on patience, but he knew a spring with the team faced with replacing four starters from last year would force him to exercise a little restraint.
“I was mentally prepared,” Cook said. “I had my patience meter on for this group, because I knew this would be a growing process for them.
“I've had an experienced group the last couple years, so we hit the ground running. This group is taking baby steps.”
But the progress can never come too soon for a program that maintains lofty goals despite its youth and inexperience.
Cook said Wednesday that the Huskers didn't respond as well as he would have liked in practice this week following last Friday's exhibition loss to Creighton. Players are still out of position in drills. Learning the offensive and defensive systems is a work in progress. The adjustments are not coming as fast as the coach would like.
So in the workouts leading up to Nebraska's final spring match at Wichita State at 5 p.m. Saturday, Cook ratcheted up the competition level looking to see which players were ready to accept the challenge.
“This group is motivated. They want to be great,” Cook said. “It's just we have a very high level of expectations in this gym, and it's hard to get to that level every day.
“But I'm not going to lower the bar for them just because we don't hit it every day. They've got to learn to hit that. Otherwise, I'd be cheating them as a coach if I didn't expect a lot from them.”
Those expectations are part of the reason Kelsey Robinson will be playing her final season at Nebraska after three decorated years at Tennessee. Robinson said injuries usually kept the Volunteers from full practices and exhibitions in the spring, but she now understands the foundation that Cook is trying to lay before six newcomers join the program for the start of the official fall season.
“At any collegiate level, the expectations are to win. But the one thing I love is that (Cook) is in the gym, and if you're messing up, he's hitting the ball right back at you,” Robinson said. “He's going to fix it, and adjust it, and he's going to go even harder. There's no let-up.
“That's what I love about being in the gym, is just having him go as hard as we go. It's something you can respect as a player.”
Three-hour practices in March and April have been an adjustment for the All-American, but she said she can already see the benefit.
“The biggest thing about this spring season is what I've learned about myself,” Robinson said. “And just pushing myself through some things I don't think I would have been able to work through a few years ago.
“I've been able to find out more about the kind of player I am and the kind of player I want to be.”
The Huskers may learn a lot about themselves this spring, but some questions will likely linger into fall. Three incoming freshmen will compete with sophomore Sheridan Zarda for the starting libero position. True freshman Kelly Hunter, one of the country's top setter recruits, will fight for the starting job with sophomore Alexa Strange, who has set this spring.
But Cook is working to figure out what he can do now with the current roster, and appears ready to shuffle the lineup Saturday to give more players a chance to compete in a match situation.
Robinson, who leads the team in kills and attempts this spring, already is a known quantity on offense, and said she may play libero against the Shockers. True freshman Kadie Rolfzen has played the position in Nebraska's first three spring matches, but will be an outside hitter this fall.
Cook said Rolfzen will not be taking swings Saturday as she continues to rest a sore shoulder, which means the spring finale with Wichita State could be a chance for sophomores Kelsey Fien and Alicia Ostrander to be main attackers.
Senior Morgan Broekhuis and freshman Amber Rolfzen have rotated at opposite hitter, seeing nearly equal time in the Huskers' first three matches.
“We're young, and we have to get older this summer, and get experienced, and find out who wants to be on the court and who's going to take that responsibility,” Cook said. “There's going to be a lot of competition.
“We've got a lot of new players coming in. So it will be an interesting summer. But the message will be sent on what it's going to take to suit up Game 1.”
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